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For Northwestern Wildcats, the more things change, the more they need to stay the same

Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern Wildcats

The Northwestern Wildcats, coming off a bowl victory last year, are trying to maintain that level of play and build consistency within their program.

What little success the Northwestern Wildcats have had in their football history seems fleeting.

The two Big Ten championship years in the mid-1990s quickly receded back to the usual Northwestern mediocrity (a higher level, admittedly). The 2012 Gator Bowl was supposed to be the breakthrough but only saw the Wildcats fail to make a bowl game the next two years.

The Wildcats are better than they have ever been. A bowl game is not merely a gift for the occasional season, it is the expectation for the program. And after Northwestern won its second bowl game in five years at the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, there is admittedly optimism for the team.

Yes, Northwestern lost star linebacker Anthony Walker (to the NFL) receiver Austin Carr and defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo (to graduation). But the Wildcats return many of the skill players and key players from that bowl win to the team.

Of course, the bowl win, too, hid another problem. The Wildcats were 6-6 and had to scramble to get there after losing their first two games, including a 9-7 loss to Illinois State at home in the second week of the season.

Northwestern, as always, stands on the edge of success and complete failure. The team and the program are seeking consistency. They want to build on their successes from the past year. To do so, they must deal with changes as every college team does.

The Wildcats are fortunate in some ways this year. They return their key offensive players — namely quarterback Clayton Thorson and running back Justin Jackson. They bring back key defensive players like Godwin Igwebuike and get back some from injury like cornerback Keith Watkins.

There is plenty of hope for Northwestern. But still plenty of players who will need to step up. Someone has to step up at wide receiver to replace Carr. The Wildcats need to find leadership among their linebackers and produce a consistent pass rush to allow the loaded secondary to do its thing.

There is an opportunity for Northwestern, for sure. The Big Ten West seems ripe for the taking if someone would seize it. The Wildcats have as good a chance as anyone else with that experience returning.

They just have to continue taking the step forward.

Northwestern is getting back into the swing of things after taking a few weeks off for finals and spring break. The Wildcats picked up their spring practice again this week, airing their practice Saturday on BTN as their “spring game.” Northwestern does not actually have a spring game and will practice for another week.

It was hard to get a good sense of where this team was at. Thorson looked sharp as ever, spreading the ball around to various receivers. The running backs got their space and into the secondary on occasion. Warren Long made a few plays at linebacker after switching from running back this offseason.

Northwestern went through their paces as they try to establish the base for their 2017 season. The opener against Nevada will be here before they know it.

None of this is to put the team’s losses behind them. The Wildcats are still looking to build depth to withstand the inevitable injuries. Outside of running back and safety, the Wildcats probably cannot afford to lose too many downs from key players.

The Wildcats’ biggest questions are still the ones they need to find in these practices in the spring.

They need to find a receiver to step into Carr’s role — whether that is Macan Wilson, Solomon Vault, Garrett Dickerson or eventual graduate transfer Jalen Brown from Oregon. They need to find a linebacker to step into this role too.

And they need everyone — like Thorson and Nate Hall and Tyler Lancaster — to step up and continue to progress.

There is no standing still. Not if the Wildcats are going to get where they want to go. Back to a bowl game and, perhaps, competing for a Big Ten West title.

As spring practice comes to an end, Northwestern is trying to make sure the team continues to grow and stays the same even through the inevitable changes.

Philip Rossman-Reich is a Northwestern alumnus and former contributor Lake The Posts. He also writes for Orlando Magic Daily and The Step Back.

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